Why You Go After Sloppy Thinking and Conspiracy Theories

One popular idea last week, after the release of Obama’s “long form” birth certificate, was that it would make no difference. The convinced are beyond evidence, the idea goes, and the hard-core advocates will never be dissuaded. While that was true of the hard-core Corsi fans, it reflected a strange kind of pessimism. Namely, it suggested that there are only two kinds of people out there: those who don’t believe a given conspiracy theory, and those who will never stop. But preliminary polling seems to be telling a different story.

Enter a recent Washington Post poll, based on a Washington Post survey taken over the weekend. The number of people who claim that the president is not native-born has dropped noticeably over the last year. Note especially how, in this survey, the theorists who claimed “strong evidence” dropped from 9% of the sample to 1%. That’s a serious drop. And for reference, remember that Apollo 11 hoax advocates can usually pull down 5%-10%.

Note the poll came just before the bin Laden news. I’ll bet the birther numbers would have been lower still if the poll had been taken the next day. Why? Because at least part of the birther numbers (or any nutty negative theory about a sitting president) represent simple perversity. Telling a telephone pollster that you believe something awful about a politician you don’t like is, for a measurable part of the population, a low-cost way to express strong disapproval. Just like how a good percentage of the truther count in the last administration reflected how a large chunk of the country couldn’t stand Bush. So if Obama’s overall approval ratings take another big dive, don’t be surprised if birther or similar theories start polling a little better.

So why spend time debunking—and giving contrary evidence to—conspiracy theories? To wear it down on the margins. You likely won’t sway the true believers. But you can peel away the marginally attached, the wavering, and the doubting. To make believing it even more of a marginalized fringe position. There is no cure for crazy, but there are vaccines. You can never convince them all, but you can make a dent.

UPDATE: Sorry about that. It took manual HTML editing for it to agree to show my paragraph breaks…

UPDATE 2: And somehow, the link to the survey went missing. Winning!

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  • Matthew Lee Anderson

    Margins are important–they move the center–but I have no time or patience to debunk the conspiracists. That’s a special calling, I think, and one I’m not in for.

    • Kevin White

      I hear you. This post was half reminding myself that it is important. And as a medieval/reformation historian, my plate is more full with historical misconceptions. It’s in my neighborhood, and closer to my expertise.

      And really, a lot of work in clearing up historical misconceptions is basically cleaning up conspiracy theories from previous centuries.

  • Jannica

    It does seem to be the case that a certain number of people are, as you say, “beyond evidence”, but I *think* you’re asserting that most people are not. How is this related to the title? Would you say that those people who are NOT “beyond evidence” basically pick one side or another based on data they have access to, which means they ought to be careful with what they believe, or ought to seek out more information as a general rule?